Pictures from Senegal

Sunday, April 25


In a few of the towns surrounding mine, there has been a lot of development work with exporting artisan products to the States and Europe. Grass baskets of all shapes, sizes and colors, jewelry, kitchen décor, leather products… the list seems to grow every day. And people in the states seem to be more and more aware. Wolof baskets are featured in Elle Décor Magazine and sold in Pier One. Purses are for sale in Banana Republic.

It wasn’t always this glorious though, and I will attempt to tell the story of the baskets in my area. Back in the day, woman from villages brought their baskets to the weekly market and competed against each other for minuscule sales at prices that were often below the cost to produce. Volunteers started by talking to the women about basic costing and pricing concepts… attempting to illustrate the losses they were incurring through their undercutting of the competition. There was talk of organizing the sellers, encouraging them to band together against buyers and hold a fixed market price.

A few years back, by chance, one travelling volunteer came across another expat who happened to be in the import business and looking for new endeavors in Western Africa. Baskets produced in the northern region of Thies came into play. And order was placed. The order was too large for any small group of village women, so it was decided that the multiple villages would need to be utilized to fill the order. And so it became apparent that a coalition was needed. Women from surrounding villages could join by paying a small fee. In return they would receive a membership card, a small portion of the order requirements, and guaranteed fair wages per basket produced (which coincidentally were higher than anything they could hope to be paid in the traditional market, and yet somehow lower than the rest of the world’s prices).

Volunteers came in to play once again when the management of basket production. Daily visits to the villages we made to explain and demonstrate quality control practices. Material purchase advances had to be made, and the volunteers went door to door to distribute the funds. Logistics had to be coordinated to get the baskets from each village to the port in Dakar. Peace Corps Volunteers took on the tasks of organizing donkey carts, warehousing, and trucking. The first order was filled; an apparent success stateside. Another order would be placed months later.

Peace Corps strives to promote and assist in projects demonstrating sustainability. Help the people help themselves. Granted this can’t always be done from the get go… so the first order was managed more under the guise of “get it done” and hope for the best; the best being a continuous flow of follow up orders. In the orders that followed, volunteers strove to teach still more business practices such as inventory control, scheduling, and price negotiations. But in the end, the ultimate Peace Corps goal is to remove the volunteer from the picture entirely. With this in mind, the importing agency developed working relations with the local English speaking Senegalese community members; in the hopes that they could perform the functions of the Peace Corps Volunteers.

Good things have come out of these few small orders: increased income and standard of living for whole villages involved, competition becoming comrades, and increased business savvy. And now, orders are starting to pick up dramatically. There’s talk that Cost Co wants to buy. While exciting news, I can’t help but wonder. This type of order is way beyond current production levels, meaning more villages would need to sign on to the alliance, as well as trained in the business practices. Increased staffing needs would mean the Peace Corps would probably have to help, instead of exiting the project. And then what happens when Elle Décor Magazine comes out with a different product du jour, and Wolof grass baskets become the new (or should I say washed out trend of) wicker? What will happen to those families in rural villages of West Africa who depended on that steady income?

The original importer in question came to speak to my training class. One of her messages was that in order for the villagers to survive the fickle Western consumer’s change of winds, they would need to be able to change their product to follow the trend. But I ask you this, do you currently own something made of wicker? I don’t have any of the answers, or even one possible suggestion. I don’t work on the project now, but if called to I would certainly come forward; I would teach the principles of product change and adaptation. But I’m not entirely sure I like the taste of this Kool Aid.

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